What is causing Kenya’s frequent power blackouts


A dark Kisumu street in a past power blackout. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Kenya was on Saturday night plunged into a countrywide blackout from around 8 p.m., being the latest power outage to hit homes and businesses in recent years.

The State-owned power distributor blamed the blackout on a hitch at two key generation points in Olkaria. Normal supply was restored near midnight.

How many blackouts have hit Kenya in recent years?

Saturday’s blackout was the fifth countrywide power outage in at least three years. Over the same period, different parts of the country have been subjected to long outages.

The longest blackout happened in August this year and lasted more than 20 hours, prompting Parliament to summon the Energy Cabinet Secretary, Kenya Power CEO and the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (Epra) to shed light.

What really is causing the blackouts?

The blackouts have been attributed to vandalism like was the case in January last year when high voltage power lines in Embakasi were hit and the cross-beams unbolted.

Breakdowns in the transmission lines and generation points have also been cited for the blackouts. Last Saturday’s outage was attributed to a broken jumper at two of Kenya’s major generation stations in Olkaria.

The blackouts have also been blamed on interference from wild animals as was the case in June 2016 when Kenya Power said a monkey had tripped a transformer at Gitaru Power Station.

But an ageing transmission line and failure by Kenya Power to revamp it have also been blamed for outages that hit some regions for prolonged periods, some running into two days mostly in the rural areas.

What has been the impact of the blackouts?

While Kenyans have complained on social media whenever the country is plunged into a blackout, businesses and critical installations are the biggest losers.

Patients on life-support machines in hospitals whose backup sources lag are exposed to deaths while manufacturers suffer lost production time when the blackouts occur.

Internet service providers and firms whose operations fully rely on the Internet are also hit given that power outages disrupt internet connectivity.

The blackouts also open an avenue for criminal activities like break-ins given that alarms and surveillance systems, electric fences and other security protocols are disabled in premises that primarily rely on Kenya Power supply.

What are the alternative power sources?

Wealthy homes and firms, frustrated by the frequent outages, have since turned to alternative sources like solar and biomass.

The shift continues to eat into Kenya Power’s sales given that large power consumers (like factories and industries) have traditionally been the biggest sources of revenue for the State-owned power distributor.

Kenya Power has since raised concern over the increasing number of customers seeking alternative electricity sources.

What story do the blackouts tell?

The now persistent blackouts continue to expose Kenya Power’s soft underbelly in terms of being a reliable driver of the economy.

An ageing transmission network, rogue staff and lack of sufficient security at key transmission points have come to the fore as questions linger over the frequency of the blackouts.

There have been concerns that previous boards of Kenya Power ignored calls from top management to approve the upgrading of key points such as transmission towers, a case in point being events that preceded the collapse of the towers at the high-voltage power lines in Embakasi in January.

The blackouts also paint the image of the financial struggles that have hampered Kenya Power from revamping the transmission network to support the growth in connections and coverage.

The transmission network has received little infrastructure support since its installation, leading to frequent outages.

Is there any recourse for Kenyans?

Currently, businesses, manufacturers, service providers like for internet, and homes are not entitled to financial compensation from Kenya Power in case of a blackout.

Kenya Power only compensates for injuries and damaged kits but does not pay for financial losses suffered as a result of being cut off from supply.

In 2015, the government rejected a Bill that required Kenya Power to compensate businesses whose power is cut off for more than three hours within a day.

Kenya Power would have been required to include the compensation in electricity bills and use it to offset future bills under the proposed law sponsored by then Mvita MP, now Mombasa Governor, Abdulswamad Nassir.

Last year, Epra floated draft regulations meant to compel electricity distributors, including Kenya Power, to financially compensate consumers in cases of blackouts.

The progress of the proposals remains unclear. If adopted, it would push Kenya Power to boost reliability at least to avoid the penalties.

PAYE Tax Calculator

Note: The results are not exact but very close to the actual.